While “fake news” has been the buzzword of choice lately, the notion certainly isn’t new by any stretch of the imagination. From Piltdown Man to Ponzi schemes, hoaxes and fraud are tied into the very fabric our truly wonderful and haphazard existence on this space rock. The Internet simply helped exponentially increase the scale at which even the most baseless, unverifiable, and even impossible claims could exploit human gullibility.
It’s no secret at this point that the World Wide Web goblet overfloweth with grifts and misinformation. (In fact, Kickstarter recently hired a Common Sense Specialist to minimize fraudulent campaigns — because in the year 2017, the very real occupation of Meme Translator simply wasn’t enough.) With every click, share, and “like” — inadvertent or not (we’re looking at you @TedCruz) — each of us has the unique ability to do our little part in seeing to it that the truth is buried beneath a mountain of misinformation. Be it a secret NASA-sanctioned space sex study that unfortunately never happened to a rare banana-borne flesh-eating pandemic, here are the best internet hoaxes that somehow got our virtual goat.
Of course, NASA, the same agency that purportedly faked the moon landings and has systematically hidden all verifiable evidence that we, in fact, live on a flat disc and not a sphere, would make this list of hoax perpetrators. In 1989, a leaked NASA report known as Document 12-571-3570 explained in great detail a program aboard space shuttle mission STS-75 that was designed to test the most effective zero-gravity reproduction methods. As racy as zero-gravity sex looked in the television show The Expanse, coitus in the final frontier would actually be pretty awkward — for everyone, according to Paul Root Wolpe, the director of Emory University’s Center for Ethics and the first Chief of Bioethics for NASA.
“One of the things that gravity helps us do is stay together, so sex in microgravity might actually be more difficult because you’re going to have to make sure that you’re always holding each other so you don’t drift apart,” he said.
To minimize Newton’s Laws of Motion (in the Ocean) — an object in motion will stay in motion unless thrusted upon by another astronaut in the name of science — NASA apparently placed astronauts in an inflatable bubble and used some sort of elastic band to keep astronauts from “drifting” during said deed. The document was widely shared online and was even used as a legitimate source in Pierre Kohler’s novel The Final Mission, prompting NASA to publicly deny the report. Alas.
While Emmett Lathrop “Doc” Brown, may have used a little suspect plutonium, a flux capacitor, and a souped-up DeLorean to bend space and time in The Back to The Future films, humanity met yet another time traveler, John Titor, in 2000, this one cruising the space time continuum in a 1967 Corvette.
Titor first appeared on a message board, claiming that he was from the year 2036 and was part of a specialized military task forced stationed in Tampa, Florida. He said his mission was to return to the 1970s to get his hands on an IBM 5100 computer, but he was making a quantum pit stop in 2000 for “personal reasons.” Over the course of several months, Titor went to great lengths to post many words about his time machine without actually saying anything at all. He even posted an illustrative user manual of the machine that looks more or less like a sophisticated furnace.
“My ‘time’ machine is a stationary mass, temporal displacement unit manufactured by General Electric. The unit is powered by two top-spin dual-positive singularities that produce a standard off-set Tipler sinusoid,” he said. (What’s a Tipler sinusoid? If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.)
The whole story gained enough traction that the man claiming to be John Titor was even interviewed on a globally streamed radio program. Just as mysteriously as Titor appeared, he vanished, but before Titor blasted off with his ornate box and Speak & Spell, he did leave us with a list of dates and prophecies for the years ahead. He claimed a civil war stemming from unrest in 2004 would eventually divide the U.S. into five separate factions and a nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia would take place in 2015.
Fortunately, none of these prophecies came to fruition, although it could be argued that Titor unraveled the cosmic fabric of our realm with his very being, and for that we are forever thankful to ol’ time-hoppin’ Johnny Tampa.
All semantics and technical distinctions aside, the Kremvax incident may be the first hoax ever perpetrated on the internet. (For all intents and purposes, the hoax occurred on the Usenet network — an early iteration of the pre-internet internet.) In 1984, computer programmer and internet pioneer Piet Beertema took it upon himself to hoodwink Americans on Usenet into thinking the Soviet Union was attempting to connect to the computer communications system.
Beertema logged onto multiple Usenet boards and uploaded a message that seemingly came from Konstantin Chernenko, General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. What reinforced the whole sham was the fact that the message appeared to be sent from a pseudo-Kremlin server (kremvax.UUCP). If Usenet, in fact, had any network connectivity to the Eastern Bloc, this breach would pose a direct threat to U.S. national security.
The immediate results on the American side of things was utter shock, disbelief, and paranoia. It didn’t take long before the Pentagon started looking into the charade and soon after Beertema revealed himself as the wizard behind the digital curtain. Got him!
15 days of darkness
In late 2015, the highly reputable website NewsWatch33 ran an article titled “NASA Confirms Earth Will Experience 15 Days of Complete Darkness in November 2015.” Not long after publication, the internet was abuzz with astronomically impossible terror. Per the article, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden had issued a 1,000-page memorandum on a worldwide blackout, citing something about Jupiter, Venus, and “planetary alignment theory.” You know, space stuff. Sadly, the report gained enough traction on the Interweb that former NASA scientist penned an article to settle the brouhaha. Thankfully, the fortnight of no light never was.
From the Orgone to the Gravgen, free energy devices and the like have been peddled by charlatans and confidence men for centuries. Needless to say, some grifts never die and, as the saying goes, a sucker is born every minute. While many of us are familiar with the timeless Potato clock, fewer of us may be privy to the powers of the onion.
In 2008, a video claimed that an electrolyte-enhanced beverage and a medium-size onion (use a larger onion if you prefer speedier recharge times) could recharge an iPod via a standard USB cable. Viewers were prompted to puncture the onion with a screwdriver and then let the vegetable steep in the electrolytes for 30 minutes. They were them prompted to forcibly shove the USB end of the charging cable into the onion and voilà, instant energy. Makes sense, right? Right.
According to the experts in this video, this electrolyte-soaked onion should be able to charge your iPod for 15 to 20 minutes (that is assuming, the onion has absorbed about one cup of electrolyte solution). After garnering more than seven million views on YouTube, the gumshoes at ABC rolled up their sleeves to test the hypothesis in pursuit of a George Polk Award for journalistic excellence. Fun Fact: No, you can’t actually charge anything with an All Sport soaked onion. Not even a little bit.
In 1999, as both the new Willennium and apocalyptic Y2K glitch loomed, tensions were high. The last thing anyone needed as they approached their unknown fate was yet another baseless reason to be marginally paranoid. In comes a suspect email straight from an anonymous source at the nondescript Manheim Research Institute about a shipments of bananas en route to the U.S. from Costa Rica containing flesh-eating bacteria.
The e-mail claimed these bananas — infected with a bacteria causing necrotizing fasciitis — had “decimated the monkey population in Costa Rica,” and would soon be on the shelves in supermarkets across the U.S. The whole sham got so big the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eventually acknowledged the prospect of such an event.
“Theoretically, it’s possible,” stated a CDC spokesman. “But, to our knowledge, the so-called flesh-eating bacteria have not been transmitted via banana.”
The skeptics, however, will surely read in between those heavily lawyered lines. Nonetheless, this hoax was so heated that the International Banana Association (IBA) — yes, that’s apparently a thing — had to step in. Banana czar Tim Debus of the IBA placed such a prank on par with “internet terrorism.”
“When we first heard about it in January, it sounded too unbelievable to be believable,” proclaimed Debus. “But when you’re talking about a food product, people will err on the side of caution.”
To the best of our knowledge, to date, no one has died as a result of this potential bandemic. Crisis averted — for now.